The Banteay Meanchey Provincial Court on Tuesday released three men involved in a land dispute in Serei Saophoan district after Prime Minister Hun Sen interceded on their behalf, officials said.
Song Yong Hong, 34, and Sok Sophal, 33, both of whom were arrested earlier this month for their involvement in a land dispute in Preah Ponlea commune, were released by the order of Hun Sen, said Investigating Judge Sim Kuch.
“They were freed by the order of the prime minister,” Sim Kuch said, adding that both men signed agreements not to incite fellow villagers involved in the dispute.
A third man, Ear Tith, 72, was also released, Sim Kuch said, but added that his case is still under investigation by the court.
Provincial Deputy Governor Sok Sereth confirmed that the three men were released because of Hun Sen’s order to do so, but both he and Sim Kuch declined to elaborate as to what authority the prime minister has to order a court to release any criminal suspects.
Ear Sopheap, 46, a daughter of Ear Tith, praised Hun Sen for releasing her father.
“Our villagers clapped and shouted ‘Long live Samdech Hun Sen. There is only you to help and allow us to stay in the same place,’” she said.
Neither Sim Kuch nor Sok Sereth would comment as to whether the villagers would be allowed to keep their land.
The release follows a similar decision on Monday by the Sihanoukville Municipal Court, which granted bail to three villagers involved in a violent confrontation with military police over a land dispute in Mittapheap district after the prime minister interceded on their behalf.
Hun Sen traveled by helicopter to Sihanoukville on Monday, pledging that local officials would return the villagers’ land within a week.
However, Sihanoukville Municipal Court Deputy Director Kim Eng said Tuesday that the decision to release the three villagers had nothing to do with the prime minister.
“We would have decided to grant bail anyway, even if Samdech [Hun Sen] didn’t come here,” he said, adding that the court considered the actions by the three men to be “minor.”
Military police claimed in the wake of the arrests that villagers had attacked them with machetes.
Sihanoukville Governor Say Hak and Deputy Governor Sbong Sarath could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Theary Seng, executive director of the Center for Social Development, which monitors the Cambodian courts, said that both cases were clear examples of the lack of independence between the executive and judicial branches.
“Intervention from a prime minister of a country is a violation of the court system, which needs to be independent from the executive branch,” she said. “This is illegal and a violation of the court’s rights.”
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap denied that the prime minister had interfered with the court, adding that even if Hun Sen did interfere, it was for the good of the country.
Hun Sen “would agree to be wrong for the villagers,” he said. “He can’t tolerate injustice done to villagers.”